When Vince Staples' Big Fish Theory dropped earlier this year, it was all Pierce Engineer & I could listen to. Learning that one of the producers on that album - Zack Sekoff - was a huge Ableton Live user, we of course wanted to reach out to him to learn about his process & how hear how he puts his beats together. What we got was a lot more than we bargained for as Zack not only explained the technical side of his production but also went deep into philosophical discussions on Live, developing & executing musical concepts, & the importance of staying open minded about where inspiration can come from & where a track can go. This episode serves as a collection of those ideas & is worth any producer's time to learn from.
Zack Sekoff: https://soundcloud.com/zsekoff
Big Fish Theory: https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/big-fish-theory/
Transcript: 004/This Can Be Anything, Still (Zack Sekoff)
Let’s look at my life in clip view for a second. Y,know, one of the biggest things I deal with in my life is time management and there’s a lot of these seemingly disparate pieces of the puzzle. So, in clip view you have, y’know, I go to Yale, so I’m about to do my senior year there, that’s one clip. Um, and there’s another clip of my personal life, like my family and my relationships, and then there’s my friends, and then there’s music, and then there’s music friends, and there’s all these different pieces, right? And in the perfect world I can do my life like I can do Ableton, like, where you can take things in a clip view and just press record and just feel what’s right and bring them in and out and try to create something that’s balanced and meaningful and…there’s some real existential shit in there about these different people end environments and experiences and jobs and tasks and identities that we have and how do we create a hybrid of all of those that, like, in song form or in day form or in life form, or whatever scale you want to make it, how can we organize them so that we feel fulfilled and challenged and that we can potentially dance to it too, it’s like, cool. Like, you can make all these technical choices about timing and perspective and then at the end of the day you bounce it out and you can play it in the car or in your headphones or at a club and you can dance to it!
I’m Zack Sekoff and I make music. I’m a producer, and I write songs, and I use Ableton to make beats, and I also play instruments, but y’know I try to just make music in any way possible.
You’re listening to the pATCHES podcast, I’m Dan from pATCHES. Zack Sekoff got his start in the LA beat scene and has gone on to work with some of the biggest names in music today - Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, and Vince Staples. In this episode, he’ll talk about creating songs from concepts and all the twists and turns you need to be open to along the way. For Zack, the connection point for everything involved in his production process is Ableton Live.
Yeah, Ableton is like the hub of my, I don’t know, my creative process like bringing in all the different elements, whether it’s samples or drum sounds that I’ve recorded or, y’know, other synthesizers, it’s kind of my home base.
Anyone who’s used Ableton knows it feels different from other DAWs. To me, it’s that Live just let’s you get your hands on your audio, you can take any starting sound & make it into just about anything you can imagine with its flexible tools & unique workflow.
I didn’t get into Ableton because anyone told me to, it was more because there was certain functionalities that like, what I wanted to make demanded that I couldn’t access at the time in Logic that I was using, so like, I was getting super into sampling and, like, changing the pitch of things, and it was just a lot harder to manipulate audio in Logic at the time.
It’s important to have these kinds of tools quickly accessible without a lot of menu diving so new ideas & sounds are easy to apply to whatever you want. This creates exciting possibilities for producers who want to push the boundaries of sound and music.
Yeah, just the capability of like, taking any piece of audio and being able to change it completely, to do anything you wanted to it. Like, that felt limitless to me. And it still does and so that’s what I love most about Ableton is, y’know warping and repitching things and chopping and how quickly I can take just any sound and make it my own. As a person who can, like, make their way on multiple instruments, it allows me to really just play and know that within the software that I can make something that I like out of it, no matter what. And that’s kind of freeing.
In this way, Zack can just trust his tools and process, so he’s able to pull back and think more about the more important macro goals of his work.
Now the conceptual part of it is getting more fun to me. Y’know, like, thinking about why do I want to make this, what do I want to make. Y’know, and those questions are more challenging than like how do I make this a lot of times, but like, they’re way fun.
In any kind of art, we consider what is made and what it represents. A photograph must do two things - it must look good & it also should have a meaning. For a photographer, the first part is easy - its a given they can make just about anything look great with composition & processing. So the creative challenge is finding ways to combine lighting, framing, & arrangement to make a statement about the idea underlying the photo. The same is true of making music – it has to sound cool, but it also has to have meaning driving it.
On the ground, like, y’know, we’re just trying to make a record happen, and we’re just trying to make the best songs we can. But it’s also about pushing boundaries and talking about concepts too, and so, um y’know I’ve just been trying to balance going with my gut and making sure I can dance to whatever we make or, like, feel it, but also like be able to look at it and be, like, “oh yeah, that made sense, like I executed a concept”. Y’know, and I think that’s part of what is so rewarding about doing something like that, is like, you can think about it first. And that’s, I think is what production – at it’s best – can be, y’know, is like problem solving from the beginning to the end of this concept.
One of Zack’s most involved projects to date was his production work on Vince Staples’ album Big Fish Theory. Zack knew from the early planning stages that there would be a risk of falling into some of the common tropes of using electronic sounds in rap.
Yeah, I mean, for me, when Vince was kind of like, adamant about it being a project that utilized and incorporated electronic sounds, I wanted to be really careful about not going down the path that I think a lot of electronic music ends up going down, which is to just like, use as much as possible, because there is just so much sound.
And it’s true - producers often have hundreds of VSTs, thousands of presets, thousands of samples, & everything that can be captured with a microphone, to choose from. It’s just a matter of a few mouse clicks to add a whole new layer of these to a track, so it’s easy to see how maximalist tendencies have become commonplace.
It’s easy to go for the big thing first, y’know to like stack a bunch of different synths together to create this really intricate patch. But for me, I was realizing that the focus for these songs was going to have to be Vince’s rapping at the end of the day, and like that our use of synths and these kind of like, non-traditional drum patterns, like I didn’t want any of that to get in the way of what Vince was doing so that’s where the minimalism kind of came out of.
Following that mindset, Zack started thinking about the project by breaking down music into its simplest components.
When we’re listening to music we’re really hearing like four things at once, it’s really hard to separate it out beyond that. Y’know, you can hear the drums happening, you can hear the bass stuff, you can hear the music, and you can hear the voice, so for me I was like, “let me take care of the three elements that aren’t the voice,”
With the minimal concept laid out ahead of time, he didn’t have to go through the normal process of stripping a song down, which is to add a whole bunch of tracks & then take most of them away. He was able to just start his beats in a simpler form.
They were skeletons that kind of worked, and then we just expanded the sonics from there but didn’t add too many more elements. And so it was like, at one time it was super minimal and at the same time we did a lot on the back end of things to make the whole record kind of cohesive and the bass was a huge part of that.
The bass did play a large role in making Big Fish Theory stand out as one of the best albums of 2017, & to create that forward-thinking sound, it required a group effort.
The team that we worked with over at East West Studios where we made the record, Will, and Mike who engineered the project and Spike Stent who mixed the project, they’re all masters of bass as well and we did crazy things like running bass sounds through cassette tape, through two-inch tape, master tape, different drum busses, we even threw the bassline on “Party People” through a speaker in one of the large tracking rooms in East West and got the room tone for the reverb on the bass.
And from talking with Zack, that’s how a lot of the album came together – as a huge collaboration between artists freely exploring many approaches to creating the best sound possible.
Yeah, and like, when we talk about collaboration, I mean it doesn’t even have to be, like, “I send you the stems to this thing because I met you on Soundcloud and it’s gonna be a collab.”, like that’s not to me what a cool collaboration necessarily is.
Because the best part of involving others in a project is that their unique experiences can introduce new ideas that you couldn't otherwise develop on your own.
I think that, yeah, it’s talking about getting out there and being faced with completely different perspectives other than your own, and like, it allows you to know what you’re doing because all you can do is make shit that comes from your perspective and your taste.
Zack’s totally right about this, of course, but what really made his point land home for me was when he started to compare the process of collaborating with other producers to playing in a band with other musicians.
When you’re just an instrumentalist in a group of people that are improvising, you only have a limited amount of suggestions that you can add in but you still have to respond to everything, y’know what I mean? So, you don’t have a lot of power to shape the full thing but you have to respond to it and suggest new things. When you might lay down, y’know, a bassline, and then someone will figure out what they think the chord progression is that goes along with that bassline, you might not have even think, but ok now the chord progression is established. Now later on, as a solo is played over those two pieces both have to evolve and respond to everything else. And that’s an important concept for democracy and that’s an important concept for the relationships that we have, and I’m not saying the way I use Ableton is some high and mighty philosophy, but I think it has relationship to these great traditions that do grow out of certain ideas like jazz and electronic music and classical music and…
The process of synthesizing multiple perspectives is essential to creative work, & the making of Big Fish Theory is a great example of this. Zack and the other artists would constantly inspire one another as they passed the songs back & forth.
So like, the “Rain Come Down” beat, I was thinking about grime when I was making it, that was what was sticking with me. And then, y’know, Vince rapped on it, and it made me feel like I was back in L.A. listening – it had a completely different shape and it reminded me that like, these sounds can always mean different things in different contexts and then when Ty Dolla $ign got on it, it opened up in a completely new way and became a completely different song to me. I think you have to love that moment.
What Zack’s saying is that new interpretations should be an exciting opportunity to explore a different direction for your track, & as a producer you should always be on the look out for these moments.
At every stage of the process I always try to keep that alive, the idea that this can be anything, still, and that it’s never set in stone. And that’s how I feel about the fluidity of genre and tempo and key, like, those things can all move and the song can move with it, and can always respond to these different things. And that’s something I learned from jazz and being serious about improvisations as a concept for making music and so what I try to always do is keep that wide open possibility there for as long as possible and try to not foreclose it too early.
This episode was produced by Pierce Porterfield, Lowell Thomas, and me, Dan Hilse. It was great having Zack as a guest, & we’re excited hear more from him. Be sure to check out the links in the show notes where you can stream or buy Big Fish Theory & explore Zack’s personal Soundcloud page.
The pATCHES podcast is a project of patches.zone, a website dedicated to creating resources for music producers. If you’re looking for sample packs, Ableton live tutorials, or music production guides, be go check out our page. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts to stay updated on future episodes. Thanks for listening!